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Project-based Learning in a High School Pre-engineering Program: Findings on Student Achievement (RTP, Strand 3)

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1265.1 - 26.1265.21



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Paper Authors


Todd France University of Colorado Boulder

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Todd France is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is part of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program and helps teach and develop curriculum at a high school STEM academy. His research focuses on pre-engineering education and project-based learning.

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Project-based learning in a high school pre-engineering program: Findings on student achievement (RTP, Strand 3) An ethnographic case study was conducted within a high school pre-engineering course.The course was taught to thirty-nine junior-level students and centered on the design andconstruction of working hovercrafts. The course is part of a unique pre-engineering program thataims to provide students of nearly all abilities with opportunities to learn about and practiceengineering in hands-on projects. The program emphasizes the development of universal skillsand habits-of-mind including communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and affect. Whilethe program has shown promise, the classroom teachers have been somewhat dissatisfied,particularly concerning student behavior and achievement. It is hoped that the immediate impact of the research will be the provision of justifiedrecommendations for the pre-engineering program. But more importantly, transferrable ideasdrawn from the study will offer readers better insight into a high school pre-engineering coursewhich utilizes a project-based learning method. Of particular interest will be the challenges thatmay arise in such an educational setting. The research questions that helped guide the study areas follows: 1) In the context of high school pre-engineering, under what circumstances hasproject-based learning been beneficial/unsuccessful? 2) What tensions have been generated? In order to develop a deeper understanding of the interactions and events within theclassroom, it was decided that a qualitative study would be most suitable. Data was collectedduring the semester-long course and includes daily observations, completed student work,student records, open-ended and Likert-type surveys, and informal discussions with theclassroom teacher. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with administrators,teachers, and students. The data has been analyzed for emergent themes and connections,quantified when possible, and compared with relevant literature. The findings for this paper will focus specifically on student achievement, categorizedinto four categories – learning goals, math and science content, problem solving, and teacherguidance. These areas are of particular interest to practitioners since there have been enactmentproblems for teachers utilizing project-based learning methods. In addition, the effectiveness ofthe learning model regarding knowledge acquisition has been called into question. Preliminary findings suggest that the creation of physical products, while intended toprovide an engaging means for attaining learning goals, are often perceived by teachers andstudents alike as the sole purpose of a course, overshadowing the development of keyunderstandings and skills. Students commonly rely on a process of trial-and-error to discoversolutions, but this problem-solving strategy often devolves into one of guess-and-check.Teachers and administrators have expressed a strong desire to include more math and scienceconcepts in the curriculum, but have encountered challenges in doing so. Students have likewiseconveyed a desire to acquire more knowledge, but they are enamored with the hands-on aspect ofthe program’s courses and have demonstrated a reluctance to delve into concepts presentedduring class, particularly when such concepts are not directly related to a project.

France, T. (2015, June), Project-based Learning in a High School Pre-engineering Program: Findings on Student Achievement (RTP, Strand 3) Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24602

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